Yechon in Annandale--longish review
Several of this board's regulars met yesterday for lunch at Yechon. We picked it because two of us had been eyeing the place with curiosity for years. Yechon occupies a rather distinctive looking stand-alone building on Hummer Road just off of Little River Turnpike. The building is a squat wood-faced structure proclaiming that it is open 24 hours a day.
As we pulled into the parking lot, my first thought was "maybe I should have called for a reservation after-all." The lot was full and every table was packed. But one of them was being held by our group, so all was well. The rest of the tables were occupied by diners of almost all ages, from people in business suits to 20-something couples to families with small kids. Ours was the only all-anglo table, no surprise there. What was a surprise was the decor inside. This was not the dive I expected from the 24x7 operation. Instead it is upscale with plenty of of classy woodwork. Both Sorak Garden and Hee Been are a bit more ornate, but this was clearly an upscale place.
We were given both the extensive regular menu and the lunch special menu. The lunch special menu has hangol transliterations but no translations of the specials, so you may need to cross-index against the regular menu to understand what is being offered. The lunch special menu was primarily bibimbap (rice with vegetables and meat, served in a blazing hot stone bowl) variations, but I saw a few soups on it as well.
The regular menu is indexed into categories that seemed a bit confusing. We were flipping all over to find various dishes and we did not even start to scratch the surface of the offerings. There are some special combos with a selection of several dishes for someone who wants to sample combinations designed for the Korean aesthetic. We went with some classic dishes offered at nearly every Korean restaurant in the region. We had a Gool Pa Jun (oyster and scallion pancake), Kalbi (grilled marinated short ribs), Nahkji So Myun (pan fried octopus with vegetables and noodles), and asked the waiter if there was a pork bibimbap on the untranslated lunch menu. That was our only ordering misfire, as we ended up with a kalbi dosolt bibim bap (beef short ribs and rice) instead. Shame on us for not trusting our meagre skills with Korean food words--a closer look at the full menu indicates that there just isn't a pork version of the dish.
Tables around us were consuming a lot of bibimbap and soups. If chowhound style sharing wasn't on our agenda, I would have ordered a soup.
We each received a bowl of miso soup and our Gool Pa Jun and Nahkji So Myun arrived shortly thereafter. The Gool Pa Jun was the largest rendition of this dish I've seen yet, filling a huge platter. It was cut into pizza-style slices and served with some small dishes of dipping sauce. My first reaction was disappointment, as there were no oyster chunks. However, it became obvious that there was plenty of oyster in the pancake. Rather than leave the oysters whole, they'd been blended into the batter, so we found only a few chunks of the mollusk itself, but plenty of oyster flavor. On the whole the pancake was light and crispy, a definite winner.
The Nahkji Somun is a dish that might be head-explodingly incendiary if you're not accustomed to Korean foods. All the adults in our group have palates hardened by plenty of exposure to Thai and Korean dishes, so we had no cranial explosions. We all found the spicing to be nicely balanced, hot without drowning the flavor of the octopus. The octopus itself was considerably more tender than most renditions of this dish. It was chewy, but it was entirely possible to cut it with your teeth. The noodles helped spread out the sauce. My one complaint is that the dish had very few vegetables other than scallion.
The Kalbi Dosolt Bibim Bap had little chunks of beef, long strands of vegetables, and plenty of rice in a hot stone bowl. We mixed everything up and let it sit for a while so some of the rice could develop a brown crust. It was a nice dish, though we managed to ignore the tiny bowl of red pepper paste that we were supposed to mix into it.
The Kalbi, which we had grilled in the kitchen rather than at our ridiculously overcrowded table, was served with the usual basket of lettuce and bowl of salty bean paste for wrapping. It was also accompanied by a plate of shredded scallions tossed with a little sesame oil and salt that not every Korean restaurant offers. This dish was good, but I didn't think it was up to the quality of the other dishes we'd had. The meat was a little stringy and the sauce a little too sweet. The two rib bones were included on the platter and are usually the tastiest meat, but this time they were reported to be a bit stringy.
We had 8 panchan with the meal. In addition to the kim chi, soy bean sprouts, and watercress that are provided with every panchan offering, we had an egg custard, a seaweed and cucumber salad, sauteed tofu, pickled daikon, and potato salad. The kim chi was among the most intimidating I've ever seen, cloaked in red pepper paste. Red pepper paste can be deceiving and often isn't nearly as hot as it looks. This turned out to be the case and the kim chi was moderately hot with a great fermented flavor. It also answered any question we had about whether the kitchen might have toned down the spicing on our octopus dish--there is no way they could have toned down the kim chi and the octopus was probably a bit hotter. I particuarly liked the sauteed tofu, which had a crispy exterior, creamy inside, and a good soy/pepper/sesame sauce.
After stuffing ourselves silly, the tab with tip (no drinks) came to $18.50 each. Most of what we ordered came from the full-priced dinner menu.
I'll return to Yechon and will add it to my short list of places that are good if I'm introducing people to Korean food.
I returned to Yechon after a fairly long absence. They were packed with people at about 11:30pm.
This was outstanding food including a stone pot bibimbap that was very crunchy and smoky. First class. We also had a bossam platter which is steamed pork belly, raw garlic cloves, sliced jalapeños, and a spicy shredded vegetable mixture to make into wraps.
Hard to find better or more fun.
As a Korean-American who is extremely snobby when it comes to authentic Korean food, I'd like to chime in and say that Yechon is one of my favorite restaurants in this area. Good food, good price, good hours :) And I agree with you (so does my husband) - the oyster pancake rocks!